On Earth Day, 40 country leaders connected through a video conference for the “Leaders Summit on Climate.” It was different from G7 or G20 meetings for big countries and different from ASEAN or APEC for regional countries. Leaders who stood out in this conference and received much attention were not only from the traditionally powerful countries but also from countries such as Bangladesh, East Timor, Gabon, Paraguay, and more that are not well-known internationally or strong economically.

 

At a time when the threat of COVID-19 has still not passed, the theme of the summit was the climate. On this topic, these remote and small countries you seldom hear about in news not only had a lot to say, but they also wanted to raise it with a stronger sense of urgency.

The Earth is like a train carrying everyone. Due to rising temperatures, the brake system is starting to malfunction. Sea level rise caused by rising temperature has forced Indonesia to move its capital. The reduction in agricultural production and desertification, which were worsened by climate change, has led to terrorism in Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa. On a global scale, the most direct and serious climate impacts are experienced by the most vulnerable population. On this train, they are the passengers who are about to be or have been thrown off track due to acceleration, but the steering wheel was never in their control to begin with.

We interviewed young passengers from 14 different countries (Bangladesh, Cameroon, Fiji, Georgia, Indonesia, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Nigeria, Palestine, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, and Uganda) and asked them three questions: Who are you? Why are you anxious? How will your 2030 be?

The following are their answers:

WHO ARE YOU?

Some of the interviewees, from left to right, Meerim Seidakmatova from Kyrgyzstan, Maanvik Gounder from Fiji, Laetania Belai Djandam from Indonesia, and Anjali Sai Chalise from Nepal.

Maanvik Gounde, a 19-year-old university student from Fiji. “The indigenous people of Fiji, called iTaukei, live closely related to nature as much of our culture and knowledge comes from it. For example, we use natural materials in weaving mats and decorate them with plant dyes. When someone gets sick, the elders treat them with herbs. The folk songs that have been sung from generation to generation are about nature. It is also nature that teaches us how to prevent potential disasters.”

Laetania Belai Djandam, a 19-year-old university student from Indonesia. “My friends call me Belai. I am Dayak of Borneo, Indonesia, a forest inhabitant. We, Dayak, believe that the forest is the father, the Earth is the mother, and the rivers are the blood.”

Shahin Alam, a 20-year-old university student from Bangladesh. “I was born in a small village beside the mangroves of the World Heritage sites of Sundarbans. We sing old ballads about the mangroves of Sundarbans: যদি বাঁচে সুন্দরবন! বাঁচবে দেশের জনগণ। উন্নয়নের মূল সারাদেশের উপকূল গাছ লাগাই পরিবেশ বাঁচাই সুন্দরবন মায়ের মতোন বাঁচাতে চাইলে দেশের মুল আসুন বাঁচাই উপকূল।. It means, “We exist because of the Sundarbans mangroves. The mangroves along the coastline are the roots of our lives. If more are planted, more people there will be. Sundarbans is our mother. The mangroves along the coastline defend our country and its people.”

Shahin planting trees.

Anjali Sai Chalise, a 20-year-old university student from Nepal, majoring in Environmental Science: “Nepal has a strong sense of religious belief. We call the trees Sitting God (direct translation of 安坐神). So even a tree has spirit. And some go and worship it.”

Shreya K. C., Shree, a 22-year-old university student from Nepal, also majoring in Environmental Science: “My mother was one of Nepal’s first indigenous people called the Kirati. We have two big festivals every year, where everyone dances in circles called Sakela. In the Ubhauli festival held in the first half of the year, we pray for a happy family and favorable weather for the crops. At the year-end Udhauli festival, we thank the gift of nature and the protection of our ancestors. We, Nepalese, express our respect for nature at these two festivals.”

Amiel Lopez, a 22-year-old university student from the Philippines studying for his master’s degree in Anthropology: “The Philippines has indigenous people with 110 different indigenous languages and cultures, 61 percent of whom are in the southern islands of Mindanao. They strive to safeguard their traditional way of life and values in this modern society. Their respect for nature or the wisdom in the coexistence with nature, and all the environmental problems nowadays—all of these have important lessons and more people need to learn from them.”

Maurice Gathu Munga, a 25-year-old Kenyan working with an environmental agency: “My tribe is called Gikuyu. Our traditional identity and cultural orientation are to be the protector of nature.”

Maurice and his companions.

Mariam Devidze, a 26-year-old Georgian also working with an environmental agency: “In Georgian, the Earth is Dedamitsa. This word consists of two parts: deda meaning mother, and mitsa meaning land. The land in which each of us lives together forms Mother Earth that gives birth and nurtures all (that has) life.”

Joyce Mendez, a 27-year-old studying for a master’s degree from Paraguay: “My ancestors are the Vayu tribe of Colombia, but I grew up on the border of Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil. The Parana and Iguazu rivers are the two main rivers of South America and this is where they meet. In addition to its abundant flora and fauna, it is the Earth’s largest freshwater resource—Guarani Aquifer. Nature is not external but it is in our innermost being. Our bodies are part of nature and our minds also conform to the logic of nature. This is the wisdom that I learned from my grandparents since I was young.”

Roxana Borda Mamani, a 28-year-old university student from Peru, majoring in Rural Development and Food Safety: “I’m a Quechua native of the Amazon rainforest and the Andes, and every aspect of our lives has to do with nature. For instance, ever since I was young, my mother taught me to cherish the seeds and not to waste them. One time, I accidentally stepped on the seeds and she shouted ñaqakuasunmi, warning me that ‘he takes revenge’ and that there will be no good harvest. We also observe the ants. If black ants come out of the hole, it means it will rain the following day. If the yellow ants come out, then it will be sunny the following day. We use the phases of the moon as the basis of our calendar. Sowing during the full moon will yield to a better harvest.”

Roxana in her home countryside.

Evelyn Acham, whose age is kept confidential, is from Uganda and is a member of the Iteso ethnic group in the east: “We have a modern proverb: MONEY IS USELESS ON A DEAD PLANET.”

WHY ARE YOU ANXIOUS?

Shahin Alam (Bangladesh): “In 2009, the tropical cyclone Ella struck Bangladesh. At that time, I was seven years old. The cyclone traversed over our village and brought heavy precipitation. This flooded the rooms of our house full and also submerged our school. I did not go to school for a whole year the succeeding academic year. Ella was my first encounter with the terrors of climate change. From then on, I realized that these rare storms come more frequently. Climate change for us, as Bangladeshi, as youth, is basically a matter of life and death.

Joyce Mendez (Paraguay): “When I was 12 years old, it was by chance that I was able to watch a documentary about climate change. The future I saw was not the future I would look forward to.”

Maanvik Gounder (Fiji): “For Pacific Island countries like ours, climate change does not only affect the safety of food, water, and health but the overall health of the country. Fiji has more than 300 islands with seas surrounding its every direction. Since most villages are situated by the seashore, even a slight rise in sea level will threaten not only the livelihoods of the people but also their lives. Now, we are extensively mobilizing residents to move inland. According to the national vulnerability assessment conducted by the Fiji Government, there are 45 villages in need of relocation due to potential disasters such as sea-level rise, flood, and tropical cyclones.”

Fiji after hit by the tropical cyclone Winston.

Amiel Lopez (Philippines): “Every year, the Philippines is hit by about 20 tropical cyclones. Because of this, our house would be flooded until the ceiling. My family and I experienced this until we moved homes to much higher ground. However, in the year 2013, Super Typhoon Yolanda (internationally known as Haiyan) took the lives of more than 6,400 Filipinos. They have already been robbed of the opportunity to talk about whether climate change is real or not, who should reduce [carbon] emissions, and by how many.

A few years ago, I taught a community of Bajau indigenous people in Davao. Bajau means ocean dwellers. They still dive and use spears to catch fish up to this day. However, they work hard to catch more plastic garbage than fishes every day. They also mentioned that because the surface temperance of the sea increased, fishes now migrated to live in cooler depths and deeper parts of the ocean that free divers cannot reach.

Indigenous community members of Bajau while freediving.

These indigenous people may not know the term climate change, but it is already part of our livelihood, our reality. It is a matter of life and death, a constant worry. This kind of urgency and crisis is not something that more developed countries and regions realize.”

Dinesh Bushal (Nepal): “Can you imagine Nepal without snow mountains? In the year 2021, there will be no snow at all. The beautiful fishtail peak has been exposed and it has turned into a bare stone mountain. Due to the temperature rise, the people situated near the glacier are always worried about the possible collapse of the glacier barrier lake, which may cause a flood breakout. In the year 2020, heavy rainfall caused landslides and flash floods killing more than 450 people in the process. Kathmandu and other major cities continue to have polluted air, which causes the people in those areas to have difficulty breathing. Rural areas experience severe water shortages and it takes two to three hours of walking distance to get a bucket of water.”

Severe drought in Northern Nepal due to climate change.

Laetania Belai Djandam (Indonesia): “As of this year, as of this day, Indonesia has recorded more than 1,000 disasters, including hundreds of floods and landslides, as well as the tropical cyclones that recently hit southeastern Indonesia. The number of affected people reached up to hundreds of thousands.”

Evelyn Acham (Uganda): “Climate change is already evident in Uganda. Dry seasons last longer, reducing crop production, which then limits people to only one meal a day or none at all. At the same time, some floods have left people with no homes to return to. Some daughters get married at a young age in exchange for money or food. Women [in our country] need to travel long distances just to find food and water. Also, some men are desperate [for food and water] that they cast their anger on women, domestically abusing them.”

Evelyn Acham in a classroom of Uganda Elementary School.

HOW WILL YOUR 2030 BE?

Victoria Akintaju (Nigeria): “The safer (it is), the cleaner (it is).”

Shahin Alam (Bangladesh): “If you do not do anything, by 2030, my village will be submerged in flood, unsurfaced. As a result, all the villagers will leave their homes and will find livelihood in the city. There will be many other villages like ours. Poverty will increase in Bangladesh. I do not want my village to be lost in flood. I hope that my home country will not be flooded.”

Maurice Gathu Munga (Kenya): “I hope that leaders and businesses of each country realize that climate change is not at all a simple environmental issue and that most (people) will be deprived of their right to live. Therefore, verbal commitments are far from enough. We need practical actions. Only this way can the global environment change for the better, not for the worse, by 2030.

Saed Jaradat (Palestine): “I am optimistic that by the year 2030, we will not be burning fossil fuels. Human beings cannot continuously survive with this unsustainable way of living.”

Solar power plant in the middle of Palestine desert.

Dinesh Bhusal (Nepal): “By 2030, there are two possible outcomes. First, climate change will worsen. Second, we have taken actions to slow it down and adapt to it. The former is no less than cutting off the required oxygen for human [survival]. The Himalayas will only be a bare rock. Mankind will start disputes just for a drop of water. Those in poverty will starve to death and the continuous increase in temperature will cause the extinction of more than thousands of wild animals. The Earth will then become a tomb radiating with heat.”

Anjali Sai Chalise (Nepal): “The air in Kathmandu will become worse and worse. If there is no control on greenhouse gas emission, I am worried that by 2030 the temperature will continue to rise. My future will be gray. No beautiful snowy mountain, not even safe and breathable air.”

Joyce Mendez (Paraguay): “I try to be a bit optimistic. By 2030, humans should have learned to reverse our mistakes, to humble themselves to nature, and to coexist with nature once again, along with the other citizens of the world. This sounds like science fiction, right? However, this is actually ancient knowledge. Every indigenous community in the world has lived in accordance with this to live in harmony with Nature.”

Indigenous group in Paraguay.

Amiel Lopez (Philippines): “By 2030, I will be 31 years old already. I hope that every day in the next 10 years will be a day full of hope. Every day, the Earth becomes a bit cleaner and safer because there will be more young people entering society. They will be the backbone and the leaders who will make adaptive strategies and implement them.”

Ethel Ruth Baquiran (Philippines): “I hope that by that time we will have more scientists involved in the government. It would even be better if they are local scientists, integrating the traditional thinking and respect (to nature) into the fact-based decision-making process.

Roxana Borda Mamani (Peru): “I will still have to imagine it. I reckon that by 2030, I will be busier and have more plants to research on, finding new ways of common development. The natives also want to development, but not a development at the cost of polluting rivers and destroying forests. We, the youth, are seeds of change and should not be trampled on.

Indigenous group in Paraguay.

Meerim Seidakmatova (Kyrgyzstan): “In Kyrgyzstan, we have many sayings about nature. For instance, do not cut down the last (lonely) tree. I hope the (lonely) tree today becomes forests in 2030.

CONCLUSION

The goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit global temperature rise below 1.5°C by the end of this century. The current average temperature of the earth is already 1.18°C higher than that of the pre-industrialization era. It is even greater in low-latitude tropical regions. On average, the entire human race only has a 0.32°C left to recover from irreversible consequences.

The United Nations Environment Programme pointed out in the 2020 Emission Gap Report: Due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, global carbon dioxide emissions have declined but the Earth is still moving towards an increase of 3°C by the end of this century. The disasters that have occurred in several countries remind us of the chilling tragedies that will surely occur if the global average temperature rises above 2°C.

Amidst the pandemic, people from different countries, income brackets, age groups, and gender show huge differences in resistance, medical response capacities, and the capability to acquire a vaccine. Climate change has also magnified these differences. Underdeveloped countries, tropical countries, Pacific Island countries, the poor, the elderly, women, children, etc. are the vulnerable groups that bear the brunt of climate change. However, these groups are also the ones who have the least voice and decision-making power in responding to the threat of climate change.

Fontoh (foremost) organizes young people to plant trees in his hometown, Cameroon.

In the interview, Maurice shared a Kenyan proverb: Rigita thi wega; ndwaheiruio ni aciari; ni ngombo uhetwo ni ciana ciaku. It means: The Earth is not given by our parents but borrowed from our children and grandchildren. In other words, we always have to return it to our descendants.

However, due to climate change, the inverse is happening. The previous generation damaged the Earth to an extent. And even if they are the ones responsible for it, they do not want to see their children’s grievances.

“This injustice” refers to anger, anxiety, and even loss expressed by almost every youth participating in the interview. But their love for the mountains and rivers beneath their feet is greater than their anxiety about the future. So these young people are also independently acting in their respective countries and communities.

Even standing outside the driving and steering compartment of this train, they have begun to educate and invite more people to join [the movement], to research the science and explore more solutions, to practice life with less carbon footprint, to install a solar panel on the roofs, and to plant saplings in the desert.

The Georgian Castle overlooks the villages that have completed energy transformation.

Nelson Mandela once said, “Sometimes a generation is destined to become great. You can become this great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”

The United Nations Environment Programme also stated in the above-mentioned report that if countries raise their Nationally Determined Contribution targets at the United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Glasgow by November this year and ensure that they take prompt and effective actions to implement them, then it is still possible to achieve the 1.5℃ target.

Only half a year from COP26, this train is still speeding up. A tug of war between the older generation and younger generation has begun.

Acknowledgment:

Special thanks to 350.org, The Climate Reality Project Philippines, Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC), and Ai Ain Project (艾蔼计划) for coordinating and supporting this interview. Thank you to all who participated in this interview: Shahin Alam (Bangladesh), Fontoh Desmond Abinwi (Cameroon), Maanvik Gounder (Fiji), Mariam Devidze (Georgia), Laetania Belai Djandam (Indonesia), Maurice Gathu Munga (Kenya), Meerim Seidakmatova (Kyrgyzstan), Anjali Sai Chalise (Nepal), Dinesh Bhusal (Nepal), Shreya K.C., (Nepal), Victoria O. Akintaju (Nigeria), Saed Jaradat (Palestine), Joyce Mendez (Paraguay), Roxana Borda Mamani (Peru), Amiel Lopez (Philippines), Ethel Ruth Baquiran (Philippines), and Evelyn Acham (Uganda).